Santer backs down over French tests



In a remarkable retreat on two flanks, the European Commission and the European Parliament yesterday backed away from a confrontation with France over the the issue of French nuclear tests.

Jacques Santer, President of the Commission, told the Parliament in Strasbourg that in the light of new information from Paris, the Commission believed that the tests were not dangerous and that there was no reason to take legal action under the Euratom Treaty.

After addressing the Parliament for less than 10 minutes, Mr Santer announced with confidence: "The tests in French Polynesia do not present any perceptible risk of significant exposure [to radiation] for the workers or the population."

Mr Santer's statement came hours after President Jacques Chirac said in New York that France will carry out six, instead of eight, nuclear tests. There appeared to be little doubt in Strasbourg yesterday that Mr Chirac's decision to reduce the number of tests was linked to an understanding with Brussels that Mr Santer would persuade the Commission to back away from legal action.

The Parliament, which had demanded action from Mr Santer to stop the tests, yesterday appeared suddenly willing to accept the Commission's decision, and dropped threats to censure the Commission for failing to take Paris to task. Pauline Green, leader of the Socialist group, asked what reason there was to believe the French data. She said the Parliament had not been shown the new information handed to the Commission. Last night, MEPs met to consider their position, but there appeared to be little stomach for a fight. Only the Greens voiced outrage, accusing the Commission of evading responsibility and lacking credibility.

Yesterday's decisions represent a victory for Mr Chirac, who has seen off the threat of embarrassing legal action in the European Court of Justice.

Taking a stance which can only encourage Britain, a powerful member state has shown two European institutions that it cannot be pushed around. French lobbying has been intense, and France's two commissioners have fought hard against any legal challenge.

For the anti-nuclear lobby, the outcome was a serious defeat. And for the two European institutions, the episode has almost certainly caused lasting damage. What the public will remember about the nuclear test row is weeks of posturing in Brussels and Strasbourg. Given the short and superficial nature of Mr Santer's presentation, there is little reason to believe public doubts about the tests will have been eased.

Mr Santer made no attempt to explain why the new information produced by Paris after two tests have been carried out already might be wholly reliable.

"We have no reason to believe the Commission's evaluation of risk, based solely on information provided by the very French authorities who are carrying out the tests and who have systematically covered up relevant data for years," said Undine von Blottnitz, a Green spokeswoman.

Mr Santer avoided criticising France for failing to provide the information to the Commission before the first two tests. Article 34 of the Euratom Treaty says that in the case of a "particularly dangerous experiment", the Commission ought to give an opinion on health and safety before the experiment begins.

The Commission's climb-down appears in the end to have been brought about as much by political considerations and by the incompetence of its staff as by an analysis of the data.

Mr Santer did not want to force a confrontation with France at a time when many important political negotiations are under way. At the same time, according to several Commission sources, it was the incompetence of Ritt Bjerregaard, the Environment Commissioner, which made it difficult for the Commission to present its case.